Research Areas

 

The Department of Linguistics at the University of Pennsylvania has a longstanding reputation for using diverse kinds of empirical data to advance linguistic theory. Known for its interdisciplinary research, the department not only spans the subfields of linguistics but also connects with many other fields in cognitive science and beyond. To learn more about the wide range of research we’re doing, click on the links below.

American Sign Language (ASL) is used by deaf communities throughout the United States and parts of Canada. ASL is a naturally formed, complex language that relies on manual and facial expressions.  ASL, like other signed languages from around the world, uses expressive properties to produce language in three dimensions.

Faculty with expertise in American Sign Language:

Jami Fisher - American Sign Language; Deaf Studies

Anna Papafragou - Experimental semantics and pragmatics, language acquisition, language and cognition

Meredith Tamminga - Language variation and change, sociolinguistics, psycholinguistics

We believe that human language has a mechanical component that can be studied precisely with mathematical and computational tools. This holds for formal theories of linguistic structures, cognitive processes of language learning and use, and how these interact. Computational linguistics research in the department is interdisciplinary, as it intersects with all major areas of linguistics as well as other fields
especially psychology and computer science. A major goal of our research is to understand the nature of human language and mind: for example, how do children learn the structure of their languages with far more limited resources than modern machine learning models? Another goal is to develop useful and robust natural language processing (NLP) tools that make use of the findings from linguistic research.

Possible dissertation advisors in this area:

Mark Liberman - Phonetics, prosody, natural language processing, speech communication

Charles Yang - Language acquisition, language change, computational linguistics, morphology, psycholinguistics

 

Historical linguistics is a subfield of linguistics in which an investigation of the history of languages is used to learn about how languages are related, how languages change, and what languages were like hundreds and even thousands of years ago—even before written records of a language.

Possible dissertation advisors in this area:

Donald Ringe - Historical linguistics, Indo-European, morphology 

Charles Yang - Language acquisition, language change, computational linguistics, morphology, psycholinguistics

Other faculty with expertise in historical linguistics:

Jianjing Kuang - Multidimensionality of tonal contrasts, phonation, laryngeal articulation across languages, computational modeling, and prosody

Gareth Roberts - Language evolution, language change, language variation, cultural evolution, experimental semiotics, social interaction

Beatrice Santorini - Syntax, Germanic linguistics, language change

Meredith Tamminga - Language variation and change, sociolinguistics, psycholinguistics

Stephen Tinney (Asian and Middle Eastern Studies) - Sumerian; Mesopotamian language and literature

 

Language is extremely complex, but children already know most of the rules for their native language(s) before five years old, without being explicitly taught. At Penn, the Schuler Laboratory and the Language & Cognition Lab are especially interested in why children seem to be so much better at language learning than adults. We want to find out whether there is something different about the way children learn or the way their brains are organized that makes language learning come naturally to them.

Possible dissertation advisors in this area:

Anna Papafragou - Experimental semantics and pragmatics, language acquisition, language and cognition

Kathryn Schuler - Language acquisition, psycholinguistics

Charles Yang - Language acquisition, language change, computational linguistics, morphology, psycholinguistics

Other faculty with expertise in language acquisition:

Jianjing Kuang - Multidimensionality of tonal contrasts, phonation, laryngeal articulation across languages, computational modeling, and prosody

Julie Anne Legate - Syntax, morphology, morphology-syntax interface, language acquisition

Dan Swingley (Psychology) - Psycholinguistics, word recognition and lexical representation in infants and young children

John Trueswell (Psychology) - Language processing, eye movements in reading, visual perception

 

Language evolution is the application of evolutionary theory to the study of language. We tend to think of evolution as being mainly a process that affects biological populations, but when it comes to the evolution of language we also need to take cultural evolution into account. The Cultural Evolution of Language Laboratory focuses on how these mechanisms shape language.

Possible dissertation advisors in this area:

Gareth Roberts - Language evolution, language change, language variation, cultural evolution, experimental semiotics, social interaction

Other faculty with expertise in language evolution:

Jianjing Kuang - Multidimensionality of tonal contrasts, phonation, laryngeal articulation across languages, computational modeling, and prosody

Anna Papafragou - Experimental semantics and pragmatics, language acquisition, language and cognition

Kathryn Schuler - Language acquisition, psycholinguistics

Meredith Tamminga - Language variation and change, sociolinguistics, psycholinguistics

Robin Clark (Emeritus) - Applications of Game Theory to natural language, Evolution and Dynamics

 

Morphology can be thought of roughly as the study of the structure of the parts of words, including for instance the nature of affixes. At Penn, morphology research spans into the syntax-morphology interface, in particular with a distributed morphology perspective in which morphology is thought to have the same constituent structures as at the level of syntax. The Embick Laboratory also uses experimental methods to investigate questions about lexical and morphological representation and processing.

Possible dissertation advisors in this area:

David Embick - Syntax, morphology, morphology-syntax interface, neurolinguistics

Julie Anne Legate - Syntax, morphology, morphology-syntax interface, language acquisition

Rolf Noyer - Theoretical phonology, morphology, morphosyntax, generative metrics, Huave, Mansi

Charles Yang - Language acquisition, language change, computational linguistics, morphology, psycholinguistics

Other faculty with expertise in morphology:

Donald Ringe - Historical linguistics, Indo-European, morphology

Martin Salzmann - Syntax, morphology, morphology-syntax interface, syntax-semantics interface, microvariation

Phonetics is the science of speech. It studies the articulation, acoustics, and perception of speech sounds. Our Phonetics Laboratory explores all of these areas.

Possible dissertation advisors in this area:

Mark Liberman - Phonetics, prosody, natural language processing, speech communication

Jianjing Kuang - Multidimensionality of tonal contrasts, phonation, laryngeal articulation across languages, computational modeling, and prosody

Other faculty with expertise in phonetics:

Gareth Roberts - Language evolution, language change, language variation, cultural evolution, experimental semiotics, social interaction

Dan Swingley (Psychology) - Psycholinguistics, word recognition and lexical representation in infants and young children

Meredith Tamminga - Language variation and change, sociolinguistics, psycholinguistics

Charles Yang - Language acquisition, language change, computational linguistics, morphology, psycholinguistics

 

Phonology is the study of the mental representations of the sound units of language and the rules that govern how mental phonemes are realized in various contexts. Phonology is also concerned with metrical and syllable structure.

Possible dissertation advisors in this area:

Eugene Buckley - Formal phonology, phonology-morphology interaction, phonological explanation, Native American and Ethio-Semitic linguistics

Jianjing Kuang - Multidimensionality of tonal contrasts, phonation, laryngeal articulation across languages, computational modeling, and prosody

Mark Liberman - Phonetics, prosody, natural language processing, speech communication

Rolf Noyer - Theoretical phonology, morphology, morphosyntax, generative metrics, Huave, Mansi

Other faculty with expertise in phonology:

David Embick - Syntax, morphology, morphology-syntax interface, neurolinguistics

Dan Swingley (Psychology) - Psycholinguistics, word recognition and lexical representation in infants and young children

Meredith Tamminga - Language variation and change, sociolinguistics, psycholinguistics

Charles Yang - Language acquisition, language change, computational linguistics, morphology, psycholinguistics

 

Psycholinguistics uses experimental methods to investigate the cognitive processes behind language comprehension and production, their development, and the mental representations of linguistic knowledge in children. Research at Penn focuses on adult and child sentence processing and on lexical representation in adults and infants.

Possible dissertation advisors in this area:

David Embick - Syntax, morphology, morphology-syntax interface, neurolinguistics

Anna Papafragou - Experimental semantics and pragmatics, language acquisition, language and cognition

Gareth Roberts - Language evolution, language change, language variation, cultural evolution, experimental semiotics, social interaction

Kathryn Schuler - Language acquisition, psycholinguistics

Florian Schwarz - Formal semantics and pragmatics, semantic and pragmatic processing

Charles Yang - Language acquisition, language change, computational linguistics, morphology, psycholinguistics

Other faculty with expertise in psycholinguistics:

Delphine Dahan (Psychology) - Psycholinguistics, spoken-language comprehension, lexical representation and processing)

Jianjing Kuang - Multidimensionality of tonal contrasts, phonation, laryngeal articulation across languages, computational modeling, and prosody

Timothy Roberts - Neurolinguistics; neuroimaging; auditory processing of language; language and autism

Dan Swingley (Psychology) - Psycholinguistics, word recognition and lexical representation in infants and young children

Meredith Tamminga - Language variation and change, sociolinguistics, psycholinguistics

John Trueswell (Psychology) - Language processing, eye movements in reading, visual perception

 

 

Semantics research is about how the meaning of a sentence is determined from its parts and the way the parts are put together. Semantics at Penn focuses on several new approaches to the field, including LTAG semantics and underspecification as well as the application of game theory. In addition, the Schwarz Laboratory uses eye-tracking and other psycholinguistic methods to investigate natural language meaning in context. Furthermore, Anna Papafragou’s Language and Cognition Lab conducts research in experimental semantics and pragmatics using data from both children and adults across multiple languages.

Possible dissertation advisors in this area:

Anna Papafragou - Experimental semantics and pragmatics, language acquisition, language and cognition

Florian Schwarz - Formal semantics and pragmatics, semantic and pragmatic processing

Other faculty with expertise in semantics:

David Embick - Syntax, morphology, morphology-syntax interface, neurolinguistics

Julie Anne Legate - Syntax, morphology, morphology-syntax interface, language acquisition

Martin Salzmann - Syntax, morphology, morphology-syntax interface, syntax-semantics interface, microvariation

Scott Weinstein (Philosophy) - Logic, formal learning theory, machine learning, recursive function theory

 

Sociolinguistics at Penn is led by the Language Variation & Cognition Lab, and focuses on linguistic variation and change in progress. Research in this field looks into the causes of linguistic change, such as social factors and contact with other languages, and has implications for all other subfields.

Possible dissertation advisors in this area:

Meredith Tamminga - Language variation and change, sociolinguistics, psycholinguistics

Other faculty with expertise in sociolinguistics:

Jianjing Kuang - Multidimensionality of tonal contrasts, phonation, laryngeal articulation across languages, computational modeling, and prosody

Anna Papafragou - Experimental semantics and pragmatics, language acquisition, language and cognition

Gareth Roberts - Language evolution, language change, language variation, cultural evolution, experimental semiotics, social interaction

Kathryn Schuler - Language acquisition, psycholinguistics

Charles Yang - Language acquisition, language change, computational linguistics, morphology, psycholinguistics

 

Syntax is the study of the structure of sentences, the principles, both universal and language specific, that govern how words are assembled to yield grammatical sentences.  The Penn Syntax Lab focuses on the theoretical implications of data from understudied varieties, and the scope of possible crosslinguistic variation.

Possible dissertation advisors in this area:

David Embick - Syntax, morphology, morphology-syntax interface, neurolinguistics

Julie Anne Legate - Syntax, morphology, morphology-syntax interface, language acquisition

Martin Salzmann - Syntax, morphology, morphology-syntax interface, syntax-semantics interface, microvariation

Other faculty with expertise in syntax:

Beatrice Santorini - Syntax, Germanic linguistics, language change

Charles Yang - Language acquisition, language change, computational linguistics, morphology, psycholinguistics